With them all over the media at the moment, now seems a good time to ask: what’s the point of party conferences? In my experience, party conferences have a host of purposes – but I am not sure that the wider world actually sees them through anything other than a looking glass darkly, and that dark looking glass is either the media take or the party spin.
But they are much more than that. Political parties are made up of human beings – easy to forget sometimes given the usual adjectives and adverbs hurled at politicians and parties! – and conference is like the gathering of the clan. A chance to meet up with old friends, share ideas, be inspired and invigorated – and have a good gossip. It’s those personal touches that do so much to both keep people involved in politics and make them more effective in their involvement.
It’s where even the humblest member can corner the high and mighty and bend their ear on their concerns. And despite our cynical modern contempt for the political classes – there are many, many good people who care passionately about how we are governed, the political choices on offer and using the political and government systems to make our life and their communities better.
TV coverage tends to centre on the main hall, with the set-piece debates and speeches. Beyond that, though, is the "fringe" – hundreds of meeting where speakers speak and questioners question on a whole range of topics. You name it – there’s a fringe on it. The political stars of each party are on a permanent merry-go round to see and be seen and met and challenged by the audiences.
Conference is also the place where you can build your profile if you are an aspiring politician or seeking election to a key party committee or indeed even the Lords – as we Lib Dems (uniquely) elect a panel from whom the party’s new peers are chosen, unlike the other parties – where the leader just decrees.
Eating is a favourite pastime and fringes that offer refreshments are the most crowded as it is quite expensive to go to conference and free food and drink on offer from the host of a fringe often makes the difference for a poor but geeky student to be able to attend.
As the conferences become more professional, as they have, there is (certainly at the Liberal Democrat conference) a wealth of training opportunities. You can learn how to make a speech, become a candidate, agent, press officer, learn the IT for membership or how to keep cohesion in your council group, design a leaflet or learn the secret campaigning techniques behind the big wins – Hornsey & Wood Green for example!
There is the exhibition too, where on a collection of stalls, from the Post Office to British Nuclear Fuels, and the RNID and the RNIB, outside bodies come to persuade us to their cause and to inform.
And then of course – there’s the debates and keynote speeches in the main hall. Liberal Democrats still do have a genuine debate and any local party can put forward a motion for consideration by the Conference Committee to go on the agenda. Any individual can do the same if the motion is signed by 20 conference representatives. Then there are amendments and topical motions too. These, together with policy papers from the party, form the main meat of the debates – and these still are debates where the outcome is not fixed in advance. Many times I have sat in the hall and felt the audience (and myself) shift their views one way and another as the debate has progressed and different arguments deployed.
And lastly, of course, it’s the media. The level of coverage is huge during party conference week – and the media do try and dictate the agenda – as indeed do the parties. For example – this year the media decided the Lib Dem conference would be all about whether Ming could cut the mustard, whether we would abandon our 50p tax and whether Charlie would upstage Ming.
Sadly for them – we had a good week. Charlie gave his valedictory speech and we acknowledged the good years we had had with him. The tax policy went through – making tax fairer and greener but not raising the overall take – and Ming was good.
So we all go back to whence we came, politically rejuvenated and enthused and physically knackered. That’s conference!